Category: Reposts


Single Song Sunday: Wayfaring Stranger
(white spirituals and the religious origins of modern folk music)

January 19th, 2014 — 7:24pm





A morning retreat with the worship associate team at our UU church yesterday, a religious education teach-in on songs as tools of social justice, and a scheduled jaunt to check out a church for sale tomorrow to see if it can be transformed into a new home have cast a non-secular sentiment over my long weekend, putting me on the lookout for the spiritual in everything. In response, we’ve gone back five years to resurrect an early Single Song Sunday feature on oft-covered traditional “white spiritual” Wayfaring Stranger, and added a whole second set of versions found and recorded since then from Gregory Paul, Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt, folk supergroups Red Horse and Red Molly, and more.

Enjoy all twenty tracks, and if you, too, need a little more spirituality in your life, check out related features on Songs From The Universalist Unitarian Hymnal and Songs of Social Justice for further musings and song.


Through much of recorded history, religion has served communities as both as a community locus and as a carrier of song; as such, it is perhaps unsurprising to find a relationship of sorts between folk music and the church itself. As with any folk form, of course, context matters; to note that several songs commonly associated with Cat Stevens can be found in the Universalist Unitarian hymnal says something very different about both artist and religious community than pointing out that a move to the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of New York’s Coney Island in the 1940s led to the recent release of a wonderful album of Woody Guthrie-penned Klezmer music.

To note that the folk song Wayfaring Stranger (or sometimes Poor Wayfaring Stranger) was first published in 1816 in the shape note tunebook Kentucky Harmony, which in turn was primarily an expansion of the work of John Wyeth and his two Repositories of Sacred Music, then, is to locate that song in the white spiritual canon — which, in turn, calls us to the American white revivalist movements of the last few centuries, to consider the common threads of a form of folk product which includes The Sacred Shakers, the work of Doc Watson, and many other works and performers with roots in New England, Appalachia, and other American church-based communities.

Though it echoes similar terminology — bluegrass gospel, most obviously — the term “white spiritual” is striking and vivid; to be honest, I’m surprised to find that Google lists only a few uses of the term, most of which seem to be part of classical choral scholarship. The conceit that white audiences had their own spriritual song, which derived its rhythm and subject from their European ancestry, illuminates folk’s origins in a way that is both new and suddenly fitting, creating a parallel path to modernity in stark contrast to the gospel folk which comes to us through african american blues music. Further, such a conceit says much about the context in which music evolved, and traveled, and spoke to and for the “folk”; exploring the term is a fine way to help reshuffle and rethink the origin of many songs which remain at the core of folk music today.

The semiotic implications of the term “white spiritual” do seem apt, when you think about it; so much of the folk which has its roots in the appalachian mountains and stark New England Shakers, after all, is about redemption, framing man’s connection to man in the context of God. And Wayfaring Stranger is an especially interesting example of the white spiritual. Though other white spirituals may be more central to the form — for example, our first Single Song Sunday subject, Amazing GraceWayfaring Stranger is notable for being a song which does not as obviously call to its spiritual nature. Which is to say: though both songs ultimately play out the relationship between the internal sinner-self and the spiritual Father, the former is a hymn of the post-redemptive self, less about the more modern folk-as-call-to-complexity and more about morality-play.

But the humble determination of the pre-redemptive self which characterizes the narrative voice of Wayfaring Stranger is not uncommon to the narrative stance of many an old British folk ballad, from the pining lass of Fair William to the besworn folkmaiden and lusty, easily swayed folklad who so often stray, only to regret it, and come back to their God. Meanwhile, the plight of the poor wayfarer remains open and non-specific, an everyman’s resolve pulling us in to folk communion. No wonder the song remains enticing; no wonder we find so many versions to pluck our fruit from.

In practice, whether or not you accept the label of “white spiritual” as applied to a song whose most famous version is in the voice of as haunted and searching a man as Johnny Cash, it is true that there is a certain emotional reverence common to all versions of the song. In fact, circularly, though there are as many ways to worship as there are men, and thus high diversity in the way different folk musicians choose to make Wayfaring Stranger their own, the question of what makes this particular song a white spiritual may be best answered by the consistent care with which all comers take on the song. To explore that commonality, and the variance in sound and tone and tempo that it nonetheless allows, here’s some interesting takes on the song, a vast array of approaches to traditional material from the very big tent that is modern folk.


WAYFARING STRANGER: A COVER LAY DOWN MIX
[download!]



Cover Lay Down shares coverfolk celebrations and ethnographic musings throughout the year thanks to the support of donors like you. Coming soon: a mailbag dip for the first covers of 2014. Plus: The Grammys!

3 comments » | Reposts, Single Song Sunday

Celebrate ALL The Christmas!
Coverfolk Mixes from Christmases Past (2008-2012)

December 10th, 2013 — 5:58pm





The season is well upon us, and the snow is falling on the trees, making a white world of what was green and brown. After school, the wee one takes the sled out; though the scant inch or two that’s fallen is too soft for traction, she seems happy enough playing on the driveway. And I am happy, too: at the fire which warms our house, and the blankets which beckon beside it; at the freedom of an afternoon shut in by snow; at the happiness of children at play.

Like the snow – and like the fleeting calm that permeates its moments – holiday favorites tend to fall, stick for a week or two, and then melt away; though their ephemeral nature makes them precious, so, too, do the songs of every season fade too easily into the haze of memory, like Dylan’s blur of childhood Christmases in Wales. And yet just as one season’s gems hardly represent the total canon of any of the artists we feature, to spend one’s time going back and forth between the public pap of the radio dial and this year’s newest holiday soundtrack is to dwell on the popular and new – a trend which neither honors the stillnesses of the season nor the comfort of its rituals and traditions.

This week and next, our coverfolk advent calendar will feature a seasonal set of new artist EPs, and single-shot videos and streaming tracks to make the spirits bright; as always, we urge pursuit of all artists through and after the holidays, that the present might lead to support and fandom, the better to keep the fires of folk alight. For now, though, we’ve dug through the archives to bring you our Christmases past – a set of seasonal mixtapes from the secular to the sublime, and the silly to the sane, curated and shared here on the blog between 2008 and 2012. Enjoy the archives, and may the spirit of the season find you in good health and good humor.

2008



2009



2010



2011



2012


Comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes, Reposts

Christmas Cheer Coverfolk:
Seasonal Songs of Drinking, Revisited

December 5th, 2013 — 2:14pm





An unexpected week in the hospital with the chronically ill elderchild has temporarily postponed what was intended to be a triumphant return to regular blogging. But last night, she was well enough to come home, and to exclaim sleepily with delight at our neighborhood alight with the trees and pageantry of Christmas as we drove though the darkened streets. And I am delighted, myself, to note that 80 years ago today, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified, ending national Prohibition, and paving the way for a return to the Christmas tradition of drinking with good company – a ritual sorely lacking in the sterile halls of even the most friendly in-patient ward.

And so a hastily-constructed thematic feature, previously lost to our server troubles last winter, is reborn.

Join us, as we lift a glass to the season and the day with a decidedly mixed-bar set of songs celebrating home, family, and holiday drinking. We’ll be back next week with some new and classic coverfolk cheer as we continue our celebration of Christmas 2013. May God bless us, every one.



Download the Cover Lay Down Drinking at Xmas mix in one convenient zip file!

1 comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes, Reposts

Give A Little Bit: On Buying Local in a Global World
(A Cover Lay Down Holiday Gift Guide)

November 29th, 2013 — 3:50pm


Sale


Monday the wee one came home frustrated that her class has been chosen to sing “Joy To The World, My Shopping’s Done” in this year’s school holiday pageant. They made it about getting things, she said, but holidays are supposed to be about giving and being together. And so we sent a timely note to school, excusing her from the pageant and all related planning activities. And the very next day, in art class, while the rest of the class glued price tags and fake dollar bills to their decorative paper pageant hats, my daughter cheerfully constructed a hat for the girl who was absent.

We’re proud of our child for working to live out her principles. We are proud, too, of her ability to see and articulate their incidence, and to seek reassurance and help to practice them effectively and without confrontation. And we are thrilled to find, just hours later, that the new Pope’s papal platform – one founded on denouncing trickle-down commercialism, and the renunciation of its detrimental social effects – marks our child as prescient, indeed.

But as parents, we are also, unabashedly, proud of ourselves. For the expression of the spirit of commerce in its myriad forms is great and everpresent, and its antithesis few and far between, in our larger society. If the expression of discomfort at its practice came from anywhere, it came – in large part – from us.

This is not a political blog. Since our inception in 2007, however, we have done our part at Cover Lay Down to fight back against the subtle tyrannies of the consumptive society. Our insistence on offering links to purchase and stream music from sources closest to the hearts and wallets of the artists themselves, and our refusal to provide ads on this space, stem from an articulated desire to “walk the walk” of ethical consumption. And because a blog is dialogic, so do we also, from time to time, step up onto the soapbox to speak out specifically on why, and how, to better support the local and the intimate – a position befitting a blog whose ethnomusical mandate explores the coincidence of sharing-through-coverage and the communal purposefulness of folk.

Today, then, for the second year in a row, we take the time to provide our own antithesis to the buy-everything-now message that seems to typify the ever-lengthening holiday season in the Western world by offering a 2013 edition of our anti-commercialist, pro-artist gift giving guide for the holidays – a harbinger of things to come after almost three months of sparse sabbatical. Read on for last year’s treatise, plus an updated list of methods and mechanisms for supporting the local and the soul-serving this giving season…and, of course, a few songs to get you into the spirit.



Screen shot 2013-11-29 at 12.41.05 PMBlack Friday is duly noted for causing havoc and stress in the mass marketplace. But if we greet its well-intentioned antithesis Buy Nothing Day with suspicion here at Cover Lay Down, it is because there is nothing inherently anti-commercial about merely deferring product-purchase if we still plan to make it to the mall eventually.

Concerns about the way big business undermines and eats away at the profitability of direct creator-to-consumer relationships are real and valid, of course. But to see consumption as all or nothing is problematic: those who quite literally refuse to buy things unwittingly undermine their own communities, for example, by cutting into taxes for schools and roads, and by destroying the ability of neighborhood artists and local community retailers to survive doing what they love.

Happily, however, there’s a whole spectrum of opportunity outside of the false dichotomy of Black Friday and Buy Nothing Day. And the answer isn’t buying nothing – it’s buying local.

We’ve long championed buying local here at Cover Lay Down. We frequent local farmer’s markets and crafts fairs; we buy apples from orchards, and beer from the brewery; we keep maple syrup and honey that was harvested by friends. In our musical purchases, we try to buy at shows, as this tends to provide the most money for artists, and helps support local venues; we’ve posted about library finds several times, too, and celebrate regional labels and artists wherever possible.

But in the digital age, buying local means not only supporting your local shops, producers, and buskers – it also means supporting the small, the immediate, the independent, and the community-minded. As such, wherever possible, the links which we offer alongside our downloadables and streams go directly to artist websites and other artist-recommended sources, the better to respect the rights and ongoing careers of creators and craftspersons everywhere.

Which is to say: we’re about authenticity and sustainability here, a set of concepts deeply entwined with the organic and acoustic music we celebrate. With that in mind, here’s some suggestions for how to honor the community sentiment which stands at the foundation of folk music, even as you look for ways to show your appreciation and love this holiday season.


1. Give the gift of recorded music. Cover Lay Down stands behind every artist we blog, and many of our regular features, such as our New Artists, Old Songs series, focus on new and newly-reconsidered music and musicians worth sharing with friends. So browse our archives and your own, and then buy CDs and downloads for friends and family direct from artist websites, independent artist-friendly labels like Signature Sounds, Compass, Waterbug, Bloodshot, Red House, and Sugar Hill Records, promotional houses like Hearth Music and Mishara Music, and small artist collaboratives and fan-fueled microlabels like Mason Jar Music, Yer Bird, Rarebird, Northplatte, and Asthmatic Kitty. Or, if you prefer to centralize your shopping, skip the chain stores and internet behemoths that undermine local mom-and-pops and pay mere pennies on the dollar, and shop instead at your local struggling music shop, Bandcamp, CD Baby, or even Etsy.

2. Give the gift of subscription. It is still a matter of debate in the music community whether the proliferation of digital streaming services is bad, potentially career-smothering news for artists. But some artists offer “backstage passes” or “VIP” access to their art and its craft, and the benefits – which can include exclusive demo tracks, concert streams, early access to new studio work, and deep discounts – are generally worth the cost. Last year’s favorite model, Jake Armerding’s Music Is Food CSA project, provided a monthly virtual “box” of song and artwork for just a dollar a month; this year, the trend has turned to projects in which patrons themselves have a voice in the creative process through feedback and demo-testing. For those ready to take the plunge, we recommend El Dorado, a subscription service from Clem Snide founder Eef Barzelay in which patrons receive and inspire a new, exclusive 3-5
song EP each month, and pay-what-you-feel projects from Merry Ellen Kirk, Jess Klein, and others at Patronism.org, which offer access to their entire body of work, alongside opportunities to become an active part of the creation process as new songs emerge.

3. Give the gift of access. Spring for a gift subscription to Daytrotter ($32/year) for the music lover in your life, and let them download years worth of studio sessions and stream exclusive live sessions from a broad set of musicians. Buy them a Skype session with a favorite folk musician, such as Denison Witmer, who turned to the medium in order to spend more time with his wife and newborn son. Or sign them up for Concert Window, a free-for-trial service which offers live concerts almost every night from some of our favorite folk venues, and where two-thirds of profits go to musicians and venues. The live performances and sessions which these subscriptions net can be viewed alone, or shared with a friend over a beer on the couch – and the virtual concert is especially apt for friends housebound by physical limitation, geographical isolation, or preference.

4. Give the gift of time. It’s good to get out with friends, and shared experiences make the best kinds of gifts; by linking directly to artist web pages, we make it as easy as possible to check out tour dates. Support your local coffeehouse or small venue by booking a table or row for you and your loved ones. Take a child to their first concert, and open up their world to the immediacy and intimacy of live performance. Take a friend, or a group, and open them up to a new artist’s work. Or host a successful house concert, and invite friends, the better to share the artists and music you love.

5. Give the gift of artistic sustainability. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Pledge Music help artists make art, and donations in someone else’s name are always a nice gift – it shows you’re thinking of them, and it honors the connection you share through music. And just as donating to your local radio station can net you a free mug, crowdfunding comes with the promise of product – a reward you can redirect, if you give in someone else’s name. So browse the folk categories on each site, or ask around for recommendations on what to support. Some local examples we’re excited to share this year: folk duo The Sea, The Sea, who we have both championed and hosted locally, are currently raising funds for an official release of stunning debut album Love We Are Love; preorder, or pay up for some bonuses, and both you and your gift recipient get to help ensure that the album gets the promotion and production it deserves. Boston-based CLD fave countryfolk singer-songwriter Amy Black, who charmed us with gorgeous solo Kris Delmhorst and Loretta Lynn covers back in 2011, is eager to release This Is Home, a sophomore solo CD recorded last summer in Nashville; bonus levels here include a sweet 4-song EP of covers recently recorded in Muscle Shoals with Spooner Oldham and Will Kimbrough and a personalized video performance. Farther afield, Austin, Texas Americana scenestress Raina Rose, who funded her own Kickstarter album successfully last year, continues to tout projects from a talented network of young artists, including up and coming releases from Alexa Woodward and J. Wagner. And parents and kidfolk lovers will be especially proud to support Lullabies and Songs of Comfort, a new project in the works from tour buddies and fellow folkmamas Edie Carey and Sarah Sample which promises a sweet mix of the old and the new for all ages.

6. Give the gift of promotion. This one is mostly about giving the artists themselves some of your hard-earned time and energy, but artists need gifts, too. So like artists’ Facebook pages, and show others in your feed what you are listening to, the better to spread the word. Join a street team, and volunteer (by yourself or with a friend, as a fun gift date) to help sell CDs, hang posters, or man the door at local coffeehouses and clubs, thus freeing artists to spend their time playing, meeting the crowd, and sustaining their own fan base. Start a blog, for you or a friend, or donate to support one in their name.

7. Stay tuned. Looking for something a little more concrete in the way of coverfolk recommendations? Willing to wait for a few more weeks to decide which albums to purchase for your loved ones and friends? Just as we did last year, Cover Lay Down will be sharing our “best of 2013″ by mid-December; the items on those lists constitute our highest recommendations, and function as a concise gift guide for the coverfolk lover in your life. And if it’s holiday music you’re looking for, just wait until next week, when we kick off our coverage of this year’s seasonal releases…

Until then, here’s a short set of relevant covers to get you in the gift-giving spirit.

2 comments » | Mixtapes, Reposts

Revisited: Mary Lou Lord Covers
Lucinda Williams, Jason Molina, Big Star, Pink Floyd & more!

October 13th, 2013 — 10:22pm





When we last checked in on Mary Lou Lord, she seemed to be on permanent hiatus following a 2005 diagnosis with a rare vocal cord affliction, though an appearance at SXSW the following year suggested she was still open to possibility. But the pixie-faced singer-songwriter who rose from the subways of Boston to indiegrunge fame through a combination of raw talent and close relationships with both Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith has been on the move lately, co-founding Girls Rock Camp in Boston, embarking on a new kickstarter-driven album, hosting open mics, and playing alongside her talented teenaged daughter Annabelle in a recent live tribute to Elliott Smith alongside Rhett Miller, Chris Thile, Bob Dorough, and others that was featured in The New Yorker.

More generally, Lord’s Facebook feed is a daily dose of awesome, a delightful combination of raw human observation and the loving curation and celebration of a number of amazing musical legacies both past and present, from Joni Mitchell and Smith himself to mutual faves Elizabeth Mitchell, Haley Bonar, Teddy Thompson, and First Aid Kit. Though she is still recovering from a serious fall off a fire escape last month, that didn’t stop her from making major news in Stereogum after an “epic” Facebook response to Courtney Love’s terrible rendition of Big Star hit Thirteen wandered into a more general response to Love’s tendency to claim in public interviews that Lord snuck onto Kurt and Courtney’s porch to kill their cat – a thoughtful, emotional, coherent use of social media that only cemented our faith in the woman’s resilience, and made Courtney seem even more insane, as if such thing were possible.

As Lord noted at her recent live performance, she doesn’t perform much anymore, and a small but growing set of Soundcloud covers, including takes on Jason Molina, Dylan, and Richard Thompson, reveal an artist still struggling to vocalize, though the resulting strain has a rare intimacy, and reveals charm of its own. But if this is a comeback, we’re all for it. Read our original feature, check out our newly-expanded list of covers – including a stunning Lucinda Williams take from her newest album – and follow Mary Lou Lord on Facebook to keep up with the resurrecting career of a well-deserving superstar.



February, 2008

As far as I can tell, the only major distinction between modern folk and a certain sort of indie music seems to be how the artists choose to produce and use instruments on their songs. And though you won’t find this sort of fuzzed-out guitar on the other folkblogs, the way the modern singer-songwriter mentality seems to find voice in both indierock and folk fascinates me.

But production isn’t what makes folk, and even if it were, the distinction is often fluid. The small but growing cadre of indie artists who perform in both folk and alt-rock modes owe no small debt to a select group of artists — Evan Dando, Lou Barlow, Tanya Donelly, Jeff Tweedy, Ben Gibbard and others — who have, over the years, moved easily across the bridge between the two forms. But these artists, in turn, owe the very existence of that bridge to other, lesser-known forerunners, like Elliott Smith and Daniel Johnston, who spent their entire careers building the bridge for them to cross.

As part of our ongoing exploration of this curious relationship, today we feature one underappreciated artist who is more often found among the indierock, but who has claimed folk credibility from the start: Mary Lou Lord, folksinger and cover artist.


I was a high school student in Boston during Mary Lou Lord’s busker days, and not an apt or diligent pupil; I often skipped class to head off down the T into Harvard Square with friends. Given our relative age, then, and her own preference for playing along the Red Line, I suppose I must have passed by Lord a couple of times. But back then, my ears were full of post-punk grunge, and she was just another streetcorner kid with an acoustic guitar, a ragged approach, and an innocent, little-girl voice. By the time she started recording alongside the best of the growing post-punk world, I had already moved on.

The heavy fuzz and feedback of much of her production puts the bulk of Mary Lou Lord’s recorded work squarely in line with early nineties alt-rock; if you’re looking for her in your local indie record store, you’ll find it alongside the pre-grunge of artists like The Lemonheads and Juliana Hatfield. But like Beck, Lord has always had a folk heart, and worn it proudly. Though she’s famous for her catfights with Courtney Love, she toured and recorded with Elliott Smith, and opened for Cover Lay Down fave Shawn Colvin. By identifying herself with those artists and others, Lord categorizes herself as an artist straddling the bridge between singer-songwriter folk and the indie world.

The songs that Lord has chosen to cover over her two-decade career speak volumes about which artists she considers her musical peers and forefathers, and here, too, we find a curious connection with the folkworld. In and among the Magnetic Fields and Big Star covers, we find covers of Smith and Colvin, indiefolkie Daniel Johnston, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, and even oldschool pre-folkie Elizabeth Cotten. Clearly, this is a woman who listens to folk music on her own time, recognizes good songwriting regardless of original instrumentation, and takes them where she can find them.

Here’s a few of my favorite Mary Lou Lord coversongs which hit that spectrum, and then some. Most are solo acoustic, delicate and coy, but don’t be scared by the occasional guitarfuzz; this is, at heart, a form of folk. Heck, if feedback was all it took, Dylan wouldn’t be a folkie anymore, either.


    Mary Lou Lord Soundcloud Covers [2012-2013]



It’s hard to link to the collected works of Mary Lou Lord; her recorded output remains scattered across several indie labels, some of them short-lived. But some of her back catalog is still available, and it’s chock full of folk covers.

Folk fans are probably best served by starting with the cover-heavy Live City Sounds, a hard-to-come-by acoustic album with several Richard Thompson covers which sounds like the streets where I once passed Mary Lou Lord in her busking days. Alt-punk label Kill Rock Stars also still carries a split bill EP and a couple of compilations.

Though her newest album seems not to have been released yet – she leaked the new Lucinda Williams track last year herself after it started getting play on media outlets – those looking for a more recent treasure trove would be well served to bookmark Mary Lou’s Soundcloud page, which has a growing mix of living room coverage and old found studio sound, including some mid-nineties tracks of her goofing around with Elliott Smith.


Bonus tracks? Sure – here’s a couple more Big Star coversongs in the same grungefolk vein. Dando’s cover is one of my favorite coversongs ever, hands down. And doesn’t Mary Lou Lord sound like a female version of Elliott Smith?


1 comment » | (Re)Covered, Mary Lou Lord, Reposts

Oceanfolk 2013: Covers for Sand, Surf and Sound

July 25th, 2013 — 6:20pm

Originally posted, with slight modifications, in August 2009, and again in 2011. Because it’s one of my favorite sets – and because bloggers need vacations, too.


herringriver


We’ve just got back from a short week in Truro, in the same rented beachhouse high on the dunes above the Cape Cod sound. It’s peaceful out there on the bluff: wakeless trawlers and shore fishermen, beach wanderers and bathers are few and far between, mere specks on an otherwise natural landscape that fills the sense with color: green grasses, faded yellow sand, the variable blues of sky and water.

At night the lights of Provincetown shone brightly just on the edge of the vista, a line of stars marking the difference between pitch-black sea and an invisible sky. The first year we were here a shooting star dropped towards them while I watched, as if longing to join the tourists and summer people in their shared debauchery. This year, the full moon showed its evidentiary head only once through the after-dark clouds, its tidal effect was visible in the disappearance of the dunes and meadows at dusk. I stayed up late reading the usual borrowed beachhouse paperback, the autobiography of an island lobsterwoman, and fell asleep before eleven.

The weeks ahead burn and roil on the horizon like sunset: crew chiefdom and a chance to steep in the community of music next week at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, a two week run of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) at the Hampshire Shakespeare Company up in Amherst, and then back to work, with new students to greet, new courses to teach, and new classrooms to maintain from then until eternity. But sitting there on the deck in the shade of the house, the marsh below me, the ocean beyond, this browngrey hawk drawing lazy circles in the blue overhead, I was reminded once again how vital it is to sit in stillness at the edge of it all, how centering it is to squeeze peace from the last fleeting weeks of summer.

It’s a good life. Here’s a soundtrack for it.



Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk sets and commentary twice weekly throughout the year thanks to the support of readers like you.

Comment » | Mixtapes, Reposts

Burning Up, 2013: More Songs for a Heat Wave
(from Ring Of Fire to Heat of the Moment, covered in folk)

July 17th, 2013 — 6:08pm





It’s been one of the hottest summers on record here in New England, with temperatures in the nineties for almost a dozen days since early June – so intolerably hot, in fact, that for the first time since the kids were born, my wife dragged out the air conditioner.

But this tiny, futile rail against the tide is not enough to make the difference. Outdoor obligations have been excruciating, and they are numerous; the rooms where we sleep remain restless torture chambers of sweat and stillness. By day, the driveway scorches, and the grass burns dry with sun. Shade offers no solace; cold showers provide but quick-fading comfort. The night is a swamp: we wilt, and nothing seems to bring us back to ourselves.

Amidst it all, I’ve been trying to put together a feature post on some great new emerging artists, but the hot, still air puts me in a stupor that stifles both the creative urge and any initiative I might have. And so we turn to the old standby: a thematic set of songs for a heat have, rebuilt around a set originally shared in May of 2010, shaken and stirred with a second round of new-found tracks, a lone concession to the creative urge. And then we’re off to the dam, to soak in the cool waters as long as we can stand it.

Listen, as the metaphors of heat – from friction to fire to the lazy lethargy of summer – stretch out in song, encompassing passion on the one hand, tempting fate on the other.


Heat Wave Coverfolk (2013) [zip!]



Previously on Cover lay Down:


4 comments » | Mixtapes, Reposts

Flower Communion, 2013:
On giving back, and taking it home

June 18th, 2013 — 2:36pm





It’s pledge time once again, folks – and so we come to you with hat and flowers in hand to ask for your support. Read on to see how you can help Cover Lay Down serve its core mission, and come away with our eternal appreciation, and a bouquet of floral coverfolk sure to thrill the senses.

Traditionally the last Sunday service before a Universalist Unitarian parish moves to a lay-led summer, the Flower Communion celebrates the contributory nature of the UU community by bringing the blooming world into the church at its last, and then letting it go back out again as we ourselves turn to the world of social justice and peace-making. The beauty and diversity of life – of our own, and of the land – is present in the rich cornucopia of the green-stemmed bounty. And by bringing flowers from our own gardens, and then taking home those of another, we pay tribute to the found and foraged nature of our practice, and of our spiritual selves.

The ritual is easily explicable: we all bring flowers, and by midservice, the dais is covered with color and scent – an even mix of found and wild sources, and the cultivated and garden-born, reflecting the organic mix of seeds and sprouts that comprise the source-cobbled praxis of our “faith where we find it.” We bless the flowers, and ourselves, and line up to pick a single stalk or clustered bloom to take with us for the summer; we sing a song of the spirit, and drift off into the fellowship hall for cake and summer goodbyes, flowers in hand and fellowship in hearts.

It’s nice to have a ritual that reminds us of the way our tiny lives are part of the passing of the seasons, their beauty ours, and their bounty shared. And as it is in church, so it is here: our little space on the web is not merely a published sequence of song, but a shared nexus of give-and-take, the songs themselves flowing back and forth through us, making us whole, and making us one. A music blog, too, is a communion, as is the experience of listening we give to each other.


I wrote the above in 2010, and the sentiment stands: I love the Flower Communion, and the way it serves as a metaphor for the communion of folk and the folk of communion. But this Sunday morning, the dynamic new change-agent minister with the ear for infrastructure reminded me of the second symbolic exchange inherent in this ritual – the taking of the communal flowers, and the way they represent how we carry the community with us into our lives. And I am minded afterwards: communion requires sharing and accepting the gifts that community brings.

And so we come to you, as we do occasionally, to pass the collections plate, that we might sustain ourselves a little better in the coming months.

I’ve said it before: Cover Lay Down remains ad-free and artist-centric, but paying for private server space to serve this community at its current scale isn’t free. I find myself often reluctant to come right out and ask for donations, especially this time of year, when my busyness outside these virtual walls peaks, but the coffers are bone-dry, and the bills due; as it is in any community, so it is with this one: without you, Cover Lay Down is nothing. The blog itself, with its mixed-bag cornucopia of blooms, thrives because we all come to put ourselves in, and if it offers you just one hundredth of the strength and joy it sustains for its author, then our investment is well-served, indeed, and I am grateful for any gift you can give in sustaining us through the summer.

If you’d like to donate to Cover Lay Down, just click the button below – we take PayPal and credit cards, and every penny goes to server costs and filesharing, that we may continue to serve our mandate to connect fans and artists through song, and in doing so, help do our part to ensure that folk, acoustic, and roots music remains vibrant and alive.

In return, we offer our eternal thanks, the warm satisfaction of the community supporter and patron, the continued recreation of the community itself, and our shoulders ever at the wheel of folk itself, working for its eternal viability.








For my part, I can note only that the long struggle to stay current in the midst of inevitable life-chaos ends in June, as it always does. Going into summer provides more opportunity to populate these pages; schoolteachers can stay up later in the warm month, and their time is, if not entirely leisurely, then at least more flexible, and less dense; neither church nor choir flag my fortune as they feed the soul.

And so the liminal period that is summer comes, its arrival marked by the dual dispersement of school and congregation. We stretch, and sink into our chairs; we sleep late, and share, and are merry, at our very best. And the flowers bloom all summer. And the music never ends.



Flower Communion Coverfolk (2010)



More Flower Communion Coverfolk (2013)



Thanks, all, for everything you bring to this space: for your eyes and ears, and your hearts, and your comments; for liking us on Facebook, so that others might come; for the support you bring each artist, and for even considering lending your financial support to this little folk-lovin’ corner of the web. And just as the communities you love benefit from your gifts, may you take from their bounty, and carry them with you.





2 comments » | Donate, Mixtapes, Reposts

Covered In Folk: Show Tunes
(Rosanne Cash, Mark Kozelek, Dar Williams, Colin Meloy & more!)

May 5th, 2013 — 3:14pm





I published the below feature three years ago today, anticipating a triumphant but fleeting return to the stage alongside my wife and daughters in a local production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after more than a decade away. Since then, however, the theater bug has returned, and the roles are getting juicier as I once again find my footing on the proverbial boards; auditions and musicals have me thumbing through the works of Sondheim, Hammerstein, Hart and Gershwin, and these folk versions have never seemed more alive.

This weekend, we’re all in a production of The Sound Of Music; I’m actually completing this as I sit backstage waiting for my cue. Today’s feature is especially fitting, then, as it acknowledges my distraction while including a beautiful cover of Edelweiss to honor the work. Look for another older post featuring songs based on the works of Shakespeare this summer, when I’ll be one of three actors in a Shakespeare in the Park production of one of my favorite pieces, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.


I was one of those arty middle-class music-and-theater kids – you know, the ones who spend their free periods in the band room, stay after school to paint sets, seem utterly disconnected from the mass media-driven marks of popular consumer culture, and demonstrate a complete and utter lack of coordinated ability in running shorts.

But it wasn’t just desire or common interest that kept me there. Natural talent, a strong ear, and an ADHD sufferer’s tendency to misplace my instrument had led to formal voice lessons and private choruses as a child (lose your clarinet, and mom gets pissed; lose your voice, and it comes back on its own). From there, I found myself on stage, and until I discovered that teaching could provide the same inner thrill, I fully expected to spend my life at its center, singing under the spotlight.

Thanks to this combination of talent, training, and opportunity, my adolescence was marked by more than just solos in the school chorus and lead roles in the high school play. Sure, I played Pippin in Pippin in my freshman year, losing my virginity to one of the older chorus members a few hours before opening night, but I also missed a lot of school in those years, thanks to active engagement in several major production companies in and around the Boston area before I cleared middle school. I even spent a late eighties summer at the Boston University Theater Institute, dressing like a Chorus Line extra, staying up late with the next generation of aspiring stars, burning through showtunes, improv exercises, Tennessee Williams monologues, and obscure Brecht/Weill operettas while my schoolmates got sunburned on the fields at soccer camp.


If the Internet is to be believed, many students growing up in the arts and theater crowd ultimately hew close to musical theater in their adult lives, finding preference and even pleasure in the songs of the stage. But for me, the theater was merely a means to an end – a love affair with the self, a mechanism for being at the center of attention, and a route to popularity and fame.

Though the stage was a place where I could shine, on my own time, as I’ve noted here before, my tastes ran towards the radio, the rising grunge and alt-rock movements, and the vast LP stacks of an audiophilic father heavy on the blues, jazz, folk and country. My mother’s small collection of original cast recordings of South Pacific, The Sound Of Music, and My Fair Lady may have been an endcap in our record cabinet, but just as my father never turned to those records, so did I eschew them, and groan alongside him when they came out of their sleeves for the occasional holiday.

As a result, though I recognize much of the canon of Broadway musicals – from Gershwin to Porter, Gilbert & Sullivan to Rogers & Hammerstein – unlike, say, the Top 40 of the eighties, or the East Coast alt-grunge movement, the genre does not interest me much as a fan or collector. To me, the Broadway songbook is something to sing, not something to listen to. To each his own, I guess.


In many ways, musical theater is the opposite of folk. The staging is formal; the audience is distant. The performers wear make-up, and are not themselves. And the distinct origin of song, lyric, and performance are clear, though attributed authorship is generally eschewed in favor of the shows from whence such songs came to us.

Where folk connects audience and performer within a complex of cultural feedback and communality – a sharing strategy which prioritizes emotional accessibility over pitch-perfect performance – as an ideal, the nuances of show tune performance are grand and showy, thanks to the trappings of character and grand narrative which underlie the very nature of theatrical production. Hearty where folk is delicate, melodramatic where folk is honest, stylized where folk is organic, show tunes don’t just come from a different part of the culture than folk music – they come from a very different place in the heart and the mind than the music we find and feature here.

Yet as a strand of the popular, the songs of the stage and screen quite often find their way into the folkways – most commonly via that melting pot of the popular, The Great American Songbook. Coverage, as such, is not uncommon, though it is rarer in the world of the solo singer songwriter than, say, the smoky realm of pop, jazz or blues vocalists – more common, even, for folk musicians to “go pop” or “go jazz” with these tunes, than for them to truly lend their folk sensibility to the popular songbook of musical theater.

But when it happens, it’s a beautiful thing. Given the difference in style and function between the two forms, the folk approach to the songs of Broadway and beyond tends towards the transformative, as the songs are localized, closing the vast gulf of spectacle which the stage mandates, replacing scale with intimacy. And so, as in coverage writ large, the song is born anew, with new meaning.

Here’s a broad set of coversongs, timeless and up-close, with a post-millennial focus, to help you see what I mean.




Bonus Repost Tracks (2013)


Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features and multisong sets twice a week thanks to the support of readers like you. As always, if you like what you hear, please follow the links above to support the artists we promote. We also accept donations, gratefully.

3 comments » | Covered In Folk, Mixtapes, Reposts

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 6: James Taylor covers
Sam Cooke, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Louvin Brothers & more!

April 21st, 2013 — 8:41pm


James_Taylor


As in past years, I’m a bit woozy today after yesterday’s all-day drive up the East Coast from North Carolina. My head still swims with the sights of barbecue joints and crabcake stands, and roadside shacks where one can get smoked ham and sausages, local peanuts, and fireworks to celebrate it all.

But it’s good to be home, where the daffodils are in full blown bloom, even if the lawn still struggles against the moss and hemlock. The American South is a wonderful place to visit; I like seeing the world, and though I’ve been to more countries than states, the diversity of the US pleases me. But the beach-to-woods geography and seasonal shifts of the American Northeast feel right, somehow. With a few tiny stints out of bounds, I’ve been a Massachusetts-based New Englander all my life, and I expect to be one for the remainder of it.

James Taylor likes Massachusetts, too. And by the time I wrote the original feature below in 2008, I’d already been promising myself a feature post on good ol’ JT for ages. What better way to celebrate our triumphant return from a week in the Carolinas than with a resurrected 20-song megapost on the coversongs of this incredible singer-songwriter plus a 10-track Single Song Sunday bonus set of You Can Close Your Eyes – my favorite James Taylor composition? And so, ladies and gentlemen: James Taylor, Massachusetts resident and one-time North Carolina transplant.

Born in Boston, James Taylor spent his adolescence in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father was Dean of the UNC School of Medicine. But the family retained strong ties to Massachusetts, summering in Martha’s Vineyard; James attended boarding school at Milton Academy, and when he struggled with depression in his early adulthood, he headed for McLean’s Hospital, a stately suburban instititution just outside of Boston where I remember visiting one of my own friends in the last year of high school.

Though he has since lived in California and London, and though his signature voice retains the barest hint of southern twang under that clear-as-a-bell blueblood bostonian accent, like me, Taylor has always returned to the Massachusetts he loves. Today, he lives about thirty miles west of here, in the Berkshires, just on the other side of the Adirondack ridge. And he retains strong ties to his beloved Martha’s Vineyard, performing there each summer, sometimes with Ben and Sally, his children by ex-wife Carly Simon, who is also a Vineyard resident.

Beyond our shared love of the beaches and woods of Massachusetts, there’s something immutably local and authentic about my experience with James Taylor. My childhood understanding of and familiarity with folk music as a genre and a recorded phenomenon was primarily driven by a strong record collection at home, but my experience of acoustic music as folk – as something singable and sharable and communal – was peppered with young camp counselors who had learned their guitar licks from the radioplay of the day. For me, Fire and Rain will always be a song for campfire singalongs, one which helps me come to terms with the bittersweet and constant state of being both in good company and away from home.

Too, James Taylor was my first concert, and you never forget your first. I remember lying on the summer grass at Great Woods (now the Tweeter Center), looking up at the stars and letting the wave of Fire and Rain wash over me. I remember peering at the stage and recognizing the way James smiled at us, at bass player Leland Sklar, at the song itself as a kind of genuine communion, one which flavored the performance with something valid and universal.

Because of that night, and the organic songs-first-performance-afterwards way I came to it, James Taylor, for me, is the standard by which I measure the authenticity of folk performance. That so many shows have not met that standard since then is a tribute to both Taylor’s gentle nature, and his way with song and performance.

James Taylor’s voice is unmistakable, almost too sweet for some, and he doesn’t fit my every mood. His loose, white-man’s-blues guitar playing is better than most people give him credit for, but it is often downplayed in his produced work. But in the back of my mind his songs are a particular form of homecoming, one intimately tied to summer song and simple times outside of the world as we usually live it. And when I sing Sweet Baby James or You Can Close Your Eyes to my children at night, there’s a part of me that’s back on that summer lawn, letting the music reach a part of me that cannot speak for itself.



We’ll have a few choice covers of Taylor’s most popular in the bonus section of today’s megapost. But first, here’s a few of the many songs which Taylor has remade in his own gentle way over the years: doo-wop standards, sweet nighttime paeans and lullabies, hopeful protest songs, and others.

Though James Taylor does have his pop side, this isn’t it. You’ve heard ‘em before, so I’ve skipped the covers which Taylor has made his own through radioplay over the years — including Carole King’s Up On The Roof and Marvin Gaye’s How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) — though I did keep a live version of Handy Man in the mix, and thought it worth trying the newer version of You’ve Got A Friend from Taylor’s stripped-down favorites recording One Man Band. I’ve also skipped his lite pianojazz ballad version of How I Know You, from the Aida soundtrack, and the vast bulk of his two recent saccharine-sweet covers albums: it’s not folk, and it’s not my thing.

Instead, by presenting a selection of Taylor’s rarer and lesser-known coversong all at once, it is my hope that the diversity of the source material here allows even the most jaded of us to come to what is too-often dismissed as Adult Contemporary pablum with new ears, attuned to more subtle differences of tone and undertone — to explore and even collapse the distance between bittersweet and tender, longing and acceptance, home and homesickness, which continues to make James Taylor worth listening to, and celebrating.



James Taylor’s works are mainstream, and distributed as such; his website sends us to amazon.com for purchase. As here at Cover Lay Down we prefer to avoid supporting the corporate middleman in favor of direct artist and label benefit, we recommend that those looking to pursue the songwriting and sound of James Taylor head out to their local record shop for purchase.

Not sure where to begin? Anything released between 1968 and 1974 provides the best introduction to JT’s core sound; I promise it’s folkier than you remember. Jaded folkies who stopped listening a while back might take a second look at Taylor’s 1977 release JT, or albums from the late eighties and nineties such as Never Die Young, New Moon Shine or Hourglass, which stand on their own as well-produced contemporary folk. 2007 DVD release One Man Band, Taylor’s return to a sparser acoustic sound, is an anomaly in the midst of an otherwise-AAA pop-trending career. And coverlovers who do embrace his smoother side are advised – with caveats – to at least consider his two post-millennial covers albums.

As for bonus tracks: for years, I’ve been saving the bulk of my collection of covers of James Taylor originals for a future Folk Family Feature on the Taylor family – including James, brother Livingston, sister Kate, son Ben, daughter Sally, and Ben and Sally’s mother Carly Simon. But I’ve been leaking them slowly and surely as time goes on, and the floodgates are open today. So here’s a full Single Song Sunday-sized set of covers of my favorite lullaby, from Mark Erelli’s tender bedtime crooning to William Fitzsimmons’ fragile indiefolk to a young and drunken Bonnie Raitt’s live heartbreaker. Download the zip file here, or pick and choose below.



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Comment » | Featured Artists, James Taylor, Reposts, Single Song Sunday

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